The Guide to Thematic Analysis

% complete
Want to know all about thematic analysis? Read this guide to get a foundational understanding of thematic analysis and its contribution to qualitative research.
Jörg Hecker
Neringa Kalpokas
Director, Training & Partnership Development
  1. What is Thematic Analysis?
  2. Advantages of Thematic Analysis
  3. Disadvantages of Thematic Analysis
  4. Thematic Analysis Examples
  5. How to Do Thematic Analysis
  6. Thematic Coding
  7. Collaborative Thematic Analysis
  8. Thematic Analysis Software
  9. Thematic Analysis in Mixed Methods Approach
  10. Abductive Thematic Analysis
  11. Deductive Thematic Analysis
  12. Inductive Thematic Analysis
  13. Reflexive Thematic Analysis
  14. Thematic Analysis in Observations
  15. Thematic Analysis in Surveys
  16. Thematic Analysis for Interviews
  17. Thematic Analysis for Focus Groups
  18. Thematic Analysis for Case Studies
  19. Thematic Analysis of Secondary Data
  20. Thematic Analysis Literature Review
  21. Thematic Analysis vs. Phenomenology
  22. Thematic vs. Content Analysis
  23. Thematic Analysis vs. Grounded Theory
    1. Introduction
    2. Grounded theory vs. thematic analysis
    3. Can I use thematic analysis in grounded theory?
  24. Thematic Analysis vs. Narrative Analysis
  25. Thematic Analysis vs. Discourse Analysis
  26. Thematic Analysis vs. Framework Analysis
  27. Thematic Analysis in Social Work
  28. Thematic Analysis in Psychology
  29. Thematic Analysis in Educational Research
  30. Thematic Analysis in UX Research
  31. How to Present Thematic Analysis Results
  32. Increasing Rigor in Thematic Analysis
  33. Peer Review in Thematic Analysis

Thematic Analysis vs. Grounded Theory

Thematic analysis and grounded theory are two foundational methods for analyzing qualitative data, each with its distinct approach to data interpretation. Thematic analysis, known for its flexibility, involves identifying, analyzing, and reporting patterns within data, providing a straightforward, accessible way to organize and describe a dataset in rich detail. A grounded theory approach, conversely, is a systematic methodology that operates on the concept of building theory through data collection and analysis, aiming to generate a theory that is deeply interconnected with the gathered empirical evidence. While they may seem different at their core, understanding how these approaches to qualitative data analysis contrast and complement each other can significantly enhance a researcher's toolkit. This article examines the distinctive features of each method and explores their potential integration, offering insights into how they can collectively enhance the robustness and depth of qualitative analysis.

Both grounded theory and thematic analysis are core approaches to qualitative data analysis.

Grounded theory vs. thematic analysis

Grounded theory and thematic analysis are both common approaches to qualitative methods, yet they differ significantly in their process, objectives, and outcomes. This section delineates these distinctions, providing a clear understanding of when and how each methodology might be most effectively employed.

Foundational objectives

Grounded theory aims to construct theory from data. It is an inductive approach where the researcher develops a theory that is grounded in the data collected, emphasizing the generation of a new theory through systematic data gathering and analysis. Thematic analysis, on the other hand, focuses on identifying, analyzing, and reporting patterns (themes) within data. It prioritizes the organization and rich description of the data set without necessarily aiming to develop a theory.

Data coding

Coding in grounded theory is aimed at theory construction. It involves open, axial, and selective coding phases, each with a distinct purpose towards building a substantive theory. Thematic analysis involves coding data in relation to identified themes, which may evolve as the analysis progresses but are not necessarily aimed at theory generation. Coding in thematic analyses is more about organizing data into meaningful groups that elucidate the research question.

Level of data interpretation

Whether in the coding process or in the analysis, grounded theory requires a deeper level of data interpretation, pushing beyond surface meanings to construct a theory that explains the underlying social processes. Thematic analysis, while still interpretive, tends to focus on describing patterns and themes without necessarily extending to theory construction.


Thematic analysis is often praised for its flexibility, applicable across various epistemologies and research questions. Grounded theory is more prescriptive, with specific steps and procedures that guide the research process toward theory generation, making it less adaptable to different kinds of research questions or objectives.


The outcome of grounded theory research is a well-developed theory that provides a broad explanation of the processes, actions, or interactions observed. Thematic analysis, in contrast, results in a rich and detailed, yet descriptive, account of the dataset, identifying and interpreting patterns across the data without necessarily culminating in a theoretical framework.

Can I use thematic analysis in grounded theory?

Integrating thematic analysis within a grounded theory framework can offer researchers a nuanced, layered approach to data analysis. By utilizing thematic analysis' strengths in identifying and organizing themes within data, researchers can enrich the theory-building process inherent in grounded theory. This section outlines a step-by-step approach to effectively combining these methodologies, enhancing the depth and rigor of qualitative research.

Identifying initial themes

The first step is to analyze the collected data using thematic analysis to identify initial themes. This process involves a careful and detailed reading of the data, noting recurring patterns or concepts. These inductively derived themes can help structure subsequent data collection and analysis within the grounded theory approach, providing a preliminary lens through which to view the data.

Developing codes within themes

After identifying initial themes, the next step is to develop specific codes that fall under each theme. These codes should capture the nuances within each theme, allowing for a more granular analysis of the data. This coding not only organizes the data but also begins to highlight the relationships between different pieces of information, which is critical for theory development in grounded theory.

Ensuring collaboration among researchers

Where multiple coders are involved, discussion is key to ensuring consistency as the research team independently codes the data. Within a team of researchers, a researcher and research assistants independently examine and code the data but come together to compare the results and discuss what theoretical insights should be drawn from the research.

Refining themes through constant comparison

Grounded theory's constant comparative method can be applied to refine the themes identified through thematic analysis. This involves continuously comparing new data with existing data, themes, and codes to refine and develop the themes further. This iterative process ensures that the emerging theory is deeply grounded in the data.

Integrating themes into a theoretical framework

Once the themes are refined, they should be integrated into a broader theoretical framework. This involves understanding how the themes relate to each other and how they fit into the existing literature and theoretical contexts. This step is crucial in moving from thematic analysis towards the development of a grounded theory that contributes novel insights to previous research.

Using themes to guide further data collection

In grounded theory, data collection is an iterative process that is guided by the emerging analysis. The refined themes can inform what further data needs to be collected, focusing on filling the gaps in the understanding of the evolving theory. This targeted data collection is essential for developing a robust and well-grounded theory.

Validating the theory

Finally, the developed theory should be validated against the data. This involves ensuring that the theory adequately explains the data and that the identified themes and relationships between them are coherent and supported by the data. This validation step is crucial for ensuring the rigor and credibility of the resulting grounded theory.